State and Local Evidence-Based Data-Driven Policy Movement Plows Forward

The City-County Building in Denver

The City-County Building in Denver Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Highlights from the Denver kickoff event for Route Fifty’s Roadshow series.

DENVER — Panelists at the kickoff event for Route Fifty’s Roadshow series on Tuesday celebrated what they characterized as a growing movement across state and local governments around the country to produce and practice increasingly efficient digital-age, evidence-based, data-driven public policy.

Speakers at the event, held at the Denver Art Museum, talked about building workplace cultures that approach policymaking as a scientific endeavor—an approach, they argued, that will lift government over typical hurdles such as uninspired leadership and shifting political winds.

“Most exciting is that states are digging in,” Dube said. “They’re defining levels of evidence, inventorying their programs, comparing program costs and benefits.”

Julia Richman presented her perspective as chief innovation and analytics officer for the city of Boulder, just northwest of Denver.

“We’re building a culture around analytics, where each person is a leader and each person can innovate,” she said. “It’s not top-down. It’s enabled.”

“States are actually doing something about this,” said Sara Dube, director at the Pew-MacArthur Results-First Initiative, citing a national report that the organization published in January that ranked state governments based on the progress they’re making toward evidence-based policymaking.

Michael Kalin, senior advisor at the Behavioral Insights Team, a government consultancy, said that eroding hesitancy or fear of actually finding out what works was an essential part of the movement.

“To identify what works is also to identify what doesn’t work, and you have to be comfortable with that,” he said.

Kalin talked about a plan in Colorado to try to get businesses to file their taxes online.

Environmental causes are popular in Colorado, so one pitch considered by staffers asked businesses to “go green” and forsake paper submissions. They also tried a pitch based on data that informed businesses that the majority of their peers were filing online. The pitch was based on peer pressure.

It was the second pitch, tracked closely, that resulted in more online filings.

“It surprised us ... Life is like high school,” he joked, adding that the point is not to defend this or that policy proposal, but “to find out what really works.”

Speakers championed carefully tailored randomized trials—low-bore, short term, inexpensive trials.

“If you’re basing your policy on anecdote or intuition, then all perspectives can seem equally plausible,” said Kalin.

“Inefficient government is really expensive. Better to spend dollars on things that work, not on things we think we should be doing,” said Richman, “...We’re trying to build a culture of quick succeeding and quick failing.”

“Be the person who asks, ‘How do I know this is effective?’” Dube said.  

As more than one attendee at the conference noted, the message of the burgeoning evidence-based policy movement lands on the ears with an ironic charge, coming as it does at a time when policymaking on the federal level seems a chaos of false starts and changed directions, where ideology and corporate interests seem to take turns steering the ship of state. 

“It’s a mystery what’s going to happen with the movement we’ve been building,” Dube admitted with obvious reluctance. She was answering a question from a member of the crowd about the influence of the new administration in Washington, D.C. “Folks in the field are just determined to keep it up and keep working hard,” Dube said.

Speakers argued that being transparent and accountable and dedicated to making solid data and information more accessible to the public is a meat-and-potatoes way to combat negative feelings about government.

“We had 90 people at a city council meeting last week,” said Richman. “Our residents are really engaged, really in our business… So we want to foster dialogue that matters—and in the environment of ‘alternative facts,’ we have to have a fact-based conversation for it to work.”    

It was a variation on a theme worked up by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. He spoke in the punchy lines that can make or break a politician.

“The reality is, you have to be transparent. You have to tell people where you are and keep showing up… You have to meet [the public] we’re they’re at,” he said.

David Edinger, chief performance officer with the City and County of Denver, talked about the disappointing nature of first-blush approaches to “open data” policymaking.

“We called it the ‘false promise of open data,’” he said.

Better first to discover what kind of data the public is interested in and then deliver it in a format that’s easy to engage.

Edinger said Denver residents were really interested in tracking where their cars had been towed, accessing trash pickup schedules and finding out where their street’s snowplow was in real-time.

“We’re building a demand data perspective. What do people want to see?” Richman agreed. “Cemetery datasets… Datasets on people who don’t move,” she added with a laugh.

John Tomasic is a journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

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